Investigators racing to determine cause of fiery plane crash that killed 41

Russian investigators said Monday they had located the flight recorders of a passenger jet that crash-landed on a Moscow runway a day earlier as investigators sought to establish the cause and the State Department confirmed an American was among the 41 people killed.

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The Aeroflot flight carrying 78 people was engulfed in flames as it made an emergency landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Sunday, careening down the runway streaming a huge trail of fire.

Authorities said 37 passengers managed to escape down evacuation slides as the aircraft’s rear was entirely consumed. But the other 41 passengers, including at least one child, are now believed dead.

Russia’s transportation minister on Monday told reporters 41 bodies have been recovered from the charred wreckage still laying on the runway.

The State Department confirmed Russian media reports that among the dead was one American.

“The U.S. Department of State extends our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed in the Aeroflot SU 1492 accident,” a State Department official said in a statement. “We can confirm the death of one U.S citizen and are providing all appropriate consular services to the family of the deceased.”

PHOTO: In this image provided by Riccardo Dalla Francesca shows smoke rises from a fire on a plane at Moscows Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday, May 5, 2019.Riccardo Dalla Francesca via AP
In this image provided by Riccardo Dalla Francesca shows smoke rises from a fire on a plane at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday, May 5, 2019.

Russian investigators said they are examining several theories about what led to the disaster, including a mishandling of technical inspections by the ground crew or air traffic controllers, inexperience among the pilots, an aircraft malfunction or poor weather conditions.

The plane, a Russian-built Sukhoi Superjet 100, took off from Moscow bound for the northern city of Murmansk, but had to turn back after running into unspecified “technical difficulties” less than 30 minutes later.

According to the Investigative Committee, Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, the pilot turned back and requested an emergency landing.

It was not until the plane reached the runway however, that the fire broke out, the committee said in a statement. CCTV footage broadcast on Russian state television showed the plane’s fuselage bouncing off the runaway high into the air before slamming back down, seeming to cause its left engine to explode.

It was still unclear what forced the pilots to attempt the emergency landing, but there were a number of reports suggesting the plane ran into bad weather and had been struck by lightning.

PHOTO: The scene of a crash of a Russian Airlines plane at Sheremetyevo airport outside of Moscow, May 5, 2019. City News Agency Moscow/AFP/Getty Images
The scene of a crash of a Russian Airlines plane at Sheremetyevo airport outside of Moscow, May 5, 2019.

A popular Russian social media news messenger, Baza, published an audio interview with who it said was the plane’s pilot, Denis Yevdokimov, in which he described losing radio communications and partial autopilot control after being hit by lightning.

“The fire was after landing, as far as I understand. Probably the cause is in that,” Yevdokimov said in the audio interview. Yevdokimov did not explain why the plane had landed so hard, saying he had believed it had come in at a usual speed.

A stewardess aboard the flight, Tatiana Kasatkina, also told Russian television the plane had encountered lightning, as did another passenger, Pyotr Egorov, speaking to a newspaper.

“We were flying and lightning struck the plane,” Egorov told the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. “The plane turned back, there was a hard landing. We almost lost consciousness from fear. The plane jumped off the runway, like a grasshopper, and already burnt on the ground.”

Questions also quickly focused on the type of plane itself. The Sukhoi Superjet 100 has a troubled commercial history since it was put into service in 2011.

The plane, the first new Russian passenger jet developed since the end of the Soviet Union, has struggled to find buyers outside Russia, with airlines concerned by doubts around parts and maintenance support.

PHOTO: The scene of a crash of a Russian Airlines plane at Sheremetyevo airport outside of Moscow, May 5, 2019. City News Agency Moscow/AFP/Getty Images
The scene of a crash of a Russian Airlines plane at Sheremetyevo airport outside of Moscow, May 5, 2019.

One of the planes crashed into a mountain during a sales demonstration flight in Indonesia in 2012, and recently there have been reports that the only foreign airline to make large use of them, Mexico’s Interjet, has been looking to offload some of its fleet after struggling to keep the planes airworthy.

The Investigative Committee has opened a criminal probe into the crash to examine whether there were any safety violations. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ordered a full investigation and for the victims’ relatives to be compensated.

Russian investigators continued to examine the wreckage on Monday, though airport officials said it would likely be moved from the runway by the end of the day. A large crane could be seen lifting the shell of the plane in the afternoon.

Sheremetyevo Airport was largely operating as normal Monday, despite the closure of one runway. Dozens of flights were delayed or diverted the night before.

ABC News’ Conor Finnegan contributed reporting from the State Department.

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